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by Margaret Hartley


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Ideas on greener living

Back-to-school waste time

I have a composition book I carry around with me to write notes, ideas, story fragments, shopping lists. Once it was my son’s school writing journal, back in the years when spelling was optional, and I like reading the first entry: “On the first day of forth grade I was verry exsided. I could hardly wate! . . . It took a few days for me to Realise the truth: I was traped in school! The end.”

The entry always cheers me, and makes me wonder why a fourth-grader can spell “school” but not “very.” But mostly it makes me wonder why he used only 10 pages in that journal, including all the drawings of race cars.

It’s school supply season, which means school list season, which means furious mom season.

Yes, it’s that time of year when I embark on my annual rant about why every kid is required to have one green folder, one red folder, one yellow folder and one blue folder, plus a separate spiral notebook for every single subject except the one with the teacher who demands a three-subject notebook.

Back in those golden times known as When We Were Kids, we started the year with one three-ring binder, some subject dividers and looseleaf paper. Worked just fine, and the binder lasted three years or so.

I like notebooks. I like having a stash of them, and I stock up during those August school supply sales. What drives me batty is being expected to buy more because mine are all red or green and it turns out that social studies notes can only be taken in a yellow notebook and math homework must be done in a blue one. And I go even more bonkers at the end of the school year when all those notebooks come home again, hardly used, all part of the paper-wasting machine that is school.

Usually I refuse to buckle to the supply list demands because paper is paper and pencils are pencils. That used to make my kids worry that they would be charged with sedition for showing up at school with paper folders instead of plastic ones or without the requisite number of eraser tops.

Then sixth grade happened. Last summer, before the boy entered sixth grade, he was sent a specific list that included 1-inch binders and 3-inch binders, single-subject spiral notebooks and three- and five-subject notebooks. He needed index cards and hole punchers, blue erasable ink pens, folders of specific colors and made of specific materials, highlighters in yellow, blue and pink, and I can’t remember what else.

My stash box of school supplies was nearly empty, and it was August sale season. I decided to appease the boy’s fear of getting in trouble, and we managed to come up with close approximations of most of the things on his list.

There was no way we could fit all the stuff in his backpack and I doubt it would have fit in his locker, but it didn’t matter. He came home after the first day of school announcing he didn’t really need all that stuff after all and that someone had sent out the wrong school list.

All the supplies went into the Mommy Box, and he got through the year just fine with a zippered binder and a couple of spiral notebooks, which both came home at the end of the year less than a quarter filled.

In fact, the Mommy Box has probably 10 spiral notebooks that have only had the first dozen or two pages used. We take them out and reuse them anytime anyone needs a new journal or notebook, and since we’re a family of writers, note takers and list makers, we eventually use all of them.

Sometimes it takes a long time. A few weeks ago, I was writing in bed, and I turned a page to find one full of multiplication, from back when the just-graduated daughter was in third grade and struggling with eight-times-anything.

“What a waste,” my husband said, looking at all the pages without multiplication on it.

“Well, I’m using it now, so I guess it’s not wasted,” I said.

I’m trying not to buy much this school supply season. I think I can dig through the box and various drawers and come up with enough paper, notebooks, pens and pencils to stock any kid for a year.

Here’s what I’m going to do to make last year’s school supplies work for this year:

* Rip out the 14 used pages in the six otherwise-perfectly-good spiral notebooks from last year to reuse them. (If you’ve got some with covers that are worn or need to be altered because, say, your son won’t use a notebook that his sister drew unicorns on, let the kids cover it with a collage or contact paper or fancy duct tape.)

* Fix a binder that’s perfectly good except for that small tear in the plastic covering with some more of that fancy duct tape. (My son, the King of Duct Tape, received three rolls for his birthday from a friend — one shiny metallic, one red with awesome black patterns, and one that I can’t remember but is, according to the boy, equally awesome. I’m sure a binder would be just as awesome with some of that tape on the spine.)

* Sharpen all those pencils that are still in the bottom of last year’s backpacks, and dig through the supply box for those three dozen eraser tops that weren’t used in third, fifth or sixth grade. Voilà! New pencils.

There will be plenty of wasted paper this new school year — all those worksheets, memos from the principal, school nurse, coach and librarian. It they’re not printed on both sides, they become scrap paper for phone messages, playing Boggle or drawing. If they are double-sided, they become fire starter or get recycled.

Recycling spiral notebooks — once they finally are used up — is a bit more of a pain, because the metal spirals need to be pulled out. It’s good that the paper is recyclable, and I’m thankful for the new paper collection bins in our town.

But one of the easiest ways to avoid waste is to avoid overbuying, which might mean not buying everything on your school supply list.

Just don’t tell anyone it was my idea. I don’t want to get accused of sedition.

Margaret Hartley is the Gazette’s Sunday and features editor. Greenpoint appears in the Gazette’s print edition Sundays on the Environment page.

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